Hattie McDaniel has indirectly been in the news quite a bit in the last month or so. The first time was for “Gone with the Wind,” the 1939 drama in which she played the smart and sassy Mammy and for which she became the first Black actor to win an Academy Award. That film was briefly removed from the streaming service HBO Max for its romanticized depiction of the Old South and the Confederacy, particularly its slave characters like McDaniels’ Mammy, who are largely portrayed as being content with serving their White masters; it is now back on the streaming service, accompanied by an introduction from TCM host Jacqueline Stewart to provide context. The second time was for the 1946 Walt Disney movie “Song of the South,” in which McDaniel played Aunt Tempe, one of the housekeepers on a Georgia plantation. While this film is set in the Reconstruction era, so technically none of its Black characters are slaves, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell that just from watching the film, and, in contrast to “Gone with the Wind,” in which McDaniel’s plays a character who can hold her own and steals every scene she’s in, just seven years later in “Song of the South,” she is given nothing better to do that smile and nod. Disney has never released “Song of the South” on home video in the United States, and while they didn’t mention the film by name in the press release, we all know it’s the reason why it was recently announced that the Disney Parks attraction Splash Mountain—which utilizes characters and music from the film—will be undergoing a makeover and be re-themed to another Disney movie, 2009’s “The Princess and the Frog.”
McDaniel appeared in over 300 movies throughout her long career, but right in between these movies, she had a very interesting supporting role in a movie that is often overlooked both in her career and in the careers of its lead actors. In would be easy to write the 1942 Warner Brothers film “In This Our Life” off as just another melodrama typical of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The third of five films starring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, Davis portrays one of the baddest girls in a filmography that’s chock full of bad girls. In the movie, Davis and de Havilland play sisters Stanley and Roy Timberlake. Their dynamic is a familiar one that would be repeated throughout their careers: Davis’ Stanley is spoiled and selfish, de Havilland’s Roy is quiet and kind. Less than half an hour into the story, we see Stanley abandon her lawyer fiancé Craig (George Brent) to run off with Roy’s doctor husband Peter (Dennis Morgan), only for them both to immediately have regrets. While that soapy storyline is engrossing, especially thanks to an explosive performance from Davis, the plot also progresses in a way that racial injustice in a frank manner that is rarely seen in mainstream Hollywood movies from this time period, and that still applies to our society today.
The rest of the article contains some spoilers for “In This Our Life,” so if you’d like to watch the film first and come back to this later, please do so.
“In This Our Life” is filled with notable actors in supporting roles, from Billie Burke and Charles Coburn to Frank Crave and John Hamilton. But few are as integral to the plot as the two Black actors in the cast: Ernest Anderson and Hattie McDaniel, who play Parry Clay and his mother, Minerva. Minerva is the Timberlake’s housekeeper. Her son Parry is a young man who gets a job in a shop. When Roy encounters him and asks how he spent his first week’s salary, she’s surprised to hear him say he purchased a law book. Asking him why he wants to become a lawyer, Parry responds,
“Well, you see it’s like this, Ms. Roy. A White boy he can take most any kind of job and improve himself. Well, like in this store. Maybe he can get to be a clerk or a manager. A colored boy, he can’t do that. He can keep a job or he can lose a job, but he can’t get any higher up. So, he’s got to figure out something he can do that no one can take away from him. That’s why I want to be a lawyer.”
Roy responds by convincing Craig to hire Parry to work in his law office while he attends school. We don’t see or hear from Parry again for a while into the film, at which point his promising future takes a dire turn. At this point, Stanley is trying to win her former fiancé back, but when he stands up her, she gets drunk at a restaurant. Driving home, she hits a mother and her young daughter; the mother is severely injured, but the girl is killed. When the police find Stanley’s abandoned, damaged car, they visit her home the next day to inquire about the situation. Stanley immediately concocts a cool lie: she tells the police that she had loaned her car to Parry last evening. Whereas we see Stanley drive away from the accident in a state of panic, in this scene, she is completely calm. We can practically see the gears turning in her head. She knows exactly what’s she’s doing, and being a wealthy socialite from a respected family, everyone believes her.
Roy, however, goes to visit Minerva after Parry is arrested. This is only the second time we see Minerva in the film; it’s an extremely small role for the likes of McDaniel, although that’s unfortunately typical of the majority of her career. In her first appearance, she displays the sort of bold humor that is reminiscent of characters like Mammy, when Roy reflects that she isn’t as pretty as her grandmother, and Minerva responds with a disdainful, “No.” But in her second appearance, which reunites her with her “Gone with the Wind” costar (surely, it was her heart-wrenching scene with de Havilland’s Melanie toward the end of that film that won her the Oscar), she converses with Roy respectfully, but honestly. In fact, she takes the tone of voice that suggests that she isn’t surprised at all by this turn of events. Parry was at home with her all night that nigh; he never took out Stanley’s car. In fact, Stanley called and told him not to bother with taking the car out to wash it because she was going to use it.
Roy: “But why didn’t Parry say that, why didn’t he tell the police? I don’t understand.”
Minerva: “Police just come and took him off, and he tried to tell ‘em, but they don’t listen to no colored boy.”
Roy believes Minerva, and eventually Craig does too. When he takes Stanley to the jail to talk to Parry, Parry calls her out on her lie. Stanley tries to convince Parry to admit that he took the car, that it’s the only way they’ll be able to help him, but he refuses, even when Craig tells him that as things stand, it’s his word against hers—implying that no one will ever believe him. But Parry doesn’t back down, and the last thing he says before they leave him is:
“It ain’t no use. It ain’t no use in this world. My telling the truth ain’t gonna help me, there ain’t nothing gonna help me.”
The film ends with Stanley’s guilt being found out and everyone she cares about realizing her selfishness and abandoning her; we have to believe that with the way the film ends, Parry will be absolved, but we don’t know for certain that the idealistic young man we saw at the start of the film will ever be the same. The last time we see him, he’s dejected and behind bars. It’s a wonderful performance from Anderson in his film debut; reportedly, Davis discovered him working in the studio restaurant and thought he would be good for the part. Anderson continued to appear in films and television until the 1970s, although the majority of his roles were uncredited appearances as waiters and the like.
Upon its release in 1942, “In This Our Life” was mostly praised for its depiction of racial discrimination. Warner Brothers was named to the Honor Roll of Race Relations of 1942 for the film’s dignified Black characters. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, who was otherwise rather lukewarm on the film, stated that its “one exceptional component” was its “brief but frank allusion to racial discrimination…presented in a realistic manner, uncommon to Hollywood, by the definition of the Negro as an educated and comprehending character.” But overall, “In This Our Life” didn’t have any lasting impact on how Hollywood portrayed Black people onscreen. The scenes that reflect positively on the Black characters were cut for theaters in the South. And when the film was being distributed overseas in 1943, the Office of Censorship in Washington (which was an agency set up in 1941 to help protect sensitive information relating to the war) initially rejected it because it implied that a Black person’s testimony wouldn’t hold up in a court of law when disputed by a White person—which is, well, accurate.
There’s a lot more that can be said about “In This Our Life”—how it was John Huston’s second time directing following his success with 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon”; how he began a torrid affair with de Havilland on set, despite the fact that they were both in relationships with other people at the time; how Davis noticed this and tried to center the spotlight back on herself with her over-the-top performance; how Raoul Walsh took over directing duties from Huston for one week, uncredited. But for me, I find it remarkable how little this film seems to be remembered; how I, a junkie for films from this era of Hollywood, only became aware of this movie in the last year or so. It may not contain the level of representation we expect from films nowadays, but it’s a rare example of one time when Hollywood—in a period where the majority of Black people onscreen were stereotyped, hanging around in the background playing servants or serving as the butt of White people’s jokes—got it right.
“In This Our Life” is currently available to rent from such digital services as Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube.